American author and writer (1819-1891)
Herman Melville was born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819, the third of eight children. When the boy was 12, his father died. Herman was silent and slow. His mother considered him a dull child. He finished school when he was 15 and for two years worked at a series of jobs. Then he signed on as cabin boy aboard the St. Lawrence, bound for Liverpool, England. He left the St. Lawrence when it returned to New York, but he could not forget the sea.
In 1841 Melville took a berth as ordinary seaman aboard the whaler Acushnet. The ship left Fairhaven, near New Bedford, Mass., for a long voyage around Cape Horn and into the South Pacific. Melville discovered that the seafaring life was harsh and oppressive, and after 18 months Melville and a companion jumped ship at the Marquesas Islands.
For several weeks they lived with the natives, then went aboard an Australian whaler. At Tahiti Melville went ashore, and for about a year he worked as a laborer. Finally he signed on as a seaman on the frigate United States and was discharged 14 months later when the ship docked at Boston.
The Sailor Turns to Writing Almost at once Melville began to set down his experiences. Within six years he published 'Typee', 'Omoo', 'Mardi', 'Redburn', and 'White-Jacket'. He married and later moved his family from New York to a farm near Pittsfield, Mass. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived nearby, and the two authors became friends. Here Melville wrote 'Moby Dick'.
He threw himself into the work and at the end was near collapse from mental exhaustion. It was published in 1851. Melville at once began 'Pierre', published in 1852. His first books were popular, but these two were attacked by the critics and virtually ignored by the public.
Melville's income from writing and farming was not enough to support his family, so he tried lecturing. His failure made him draw even closer into himself. At length he became a customs inspector in New York City. He held the post for 19 years. He wrote several volumes of poetry and a number of short stories. One of the finest of these stories, 'Benito Cereno', appeared in the collection 'The Piazza Tales' (1856). He completed a powerful, almost morbid short novel, 'Billy Budd', three months before his death on Sept. 28, 1891, but it was not published until 1924. For decades Melville's books lay in obscurity. But after World War I students of American literature rediscovered Melville. Today his works enjoy a wide critical and popular audience. Moby Dick is one of the wonderful classic works of our times.